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Developmental (Content) Editing Comes Before Copyediting

by Caroline T
Professional Fiction Editor

I like to think of editing fiction as the construction of a building.  For new writers who are interested in or who have already reached out to an editing professional, I find this “picture” helps to give a sense of the chronology when it comes to the actual editing of the manuscript, the “What should I fix, when?”

In my experience, it seems that the different types of editing aren’t always understood or writers aren’t always aware that there is more than one phase involved to bring a manuscript to submission-ready status. From my perspective as the content or developmental editor, the revision process should be approached in stages.

The first thing to focus on is the frame or storyboard, as I like to call it.  Is there a beginning, a middle and an end to the plot, or a story arc?  Do the cast have character profiles? Is it clear which characters will have a point of view?  Is the time line clear? Are the sub-plots or threads pulled through to the end? These are some of the big ticket items common in genre fiction and I always address these issues up front. These aspects have to be solid or the frame will not support the building.

Next, start to fill in the scenes or infrastructure,  what makes the story move forward;  background, motive, twists, conflicts, action, clue-dropping, love scene, etc.  Does A connect to B on the timeline?  Is it all logical? Is key information being given to the reader by the appropriate character? Is there too much back-story dumping? Is there too much internal musing or description? Is the point of view jumping within a scene? Is there enough action or drama? This goes to pacing and whether or not the story is reading well.  Combined with the above, these fixes can take a long time. Developmental editing is a back and forth exchange between writer and editor and when both are satisfied that Part One and Part Two are solid then it’s time to deal with the nitty-gritty.  This is where I check out and hand over the project to the experienced professional required for this last and crucial phase.

Sometimes, writers are eager to focus on copy editing first.  Copyediting highlights the correct rules of grammar and punctuation, word usage, fact checking…But imagine what would happen if this fine-tuning came before the infrastructure or the framing?  What if the room was decorated before the walls were sheet-rocked? If an editor determines that the walls of the building need to come down or the rooms need to be rearranged in the house, and the editor has already spent time and effort on the words and how they are used, then the time has been wasted, correct? What is the point? Is this the best use of the fee the writer has paid?  Why bother to focus on these nuts and bolts when entire chunks of the building may be demolished?  It isn’t logical.  Pages upon pages of a manuscript can be sent to the recycle bin during a revision. Characters can be deleted, points of view erased. Entire sub-plots may be deemed unnecessary.  The very last part of the revision process a writer should turn their attention to is the copy edit and fact check.  This then puts a nice neat bow on the package they are now ready to send.

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